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Making of a candidate: Born in the backrooms

By Connor Adams Sheets

State Senator Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) said last week that after 38 years in Albany, he knows how people become politicians.

“There’s a moment of insanity,” he said. “You’re sane, then you get involved in politics and you’re insane.”

There may be some truth to Padavan’s joke, and no one knows this better than the longest-serving current member of the Senate, but despite how it may sometimes appear to those who follow politics, insanity alone is not enough to win an election.

This TimesLedger Newspapers series, which begins as this year’s campaigns start to heat up, will look at what it takes to make one’s way from being an unknown private citizen in Queens to being vested with the power to make decisions about every aspect of people’s lives.

These stories will explore not only the technical aspects of the electoral system, but also the personalities who work both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. They will also track the ways some political operatives bend and break the rules in their quest to win.

One northeast Queens campaigner regularly plays candidates against their opponents and during one campaign worked for six different candidates representing both sides of the aisle in the same race, claiming to earn more than $30,000 in one month.

The series will focus on northeast Queens, an area with a dynamic political life that will serve as a microcosm of New York City.

For most voters, the rosy side of politics is most visible in Flushing, Whitestone, Bayside and other northeast Queens communities, and many times public events and works lead to great benefits for the people who live in those areas since they are an essential part to getting elected.

“You’ve got to pay dues. Join neighborhood organizations or form one, or do both,” said Don Capalbi, an aide to Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and president of the Queensboro Hill Neighborhood Association civic group. “Look at do-good organizations in your neighborhood. Be active, start serving your community. If you want people to believe you’re going to serve the community, do it now.”

But the underbelly of politics is alive and well. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson had a theory that “the truth is never told during the 9-to-5 hours.”

Though that overstates the reality of the situation, it gets at the fact that many of the critical decisions that actually determine the outcomes of local elections occur around a case of Budweiser in a Flushing backyard, during informal discussions after meetings end or in Bayside bars when reporters are nowhere to be seen.

As such, the grunt work of politics is often hidden by a sheen of slicked-back hair and tailored suits. Some of the roughest fights happen not on the debate lectern but on the pages of petition signatures.

“Once you get the signatures, then you’re in a period of purgatory. Everyone will try to knock you off the ballot,” said Julia Harrison, an influential Democratic power broker in Flushing, former city councilwoman and former state assemblywoman who now serves as Democratic district leader in the 25th Assembly District.

Campaigning in Queens can be a dirty game, as politicos on both sides of the aisle are quick to say. But it has vetted the borough’s elected representatives and introduced candidates to constituents over the years — for better or for worse.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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